Music opens doors to other cultures, other landscapes. It can open connections, share stories, and help us go more deeply into places new, and places familiar. Music can bring back memories, and help in the creation of new experiences. Music makes a fine gift, for those who travel often and for those whose travels are most often through Imagination.
Through the years, I’ve often suggested music for your holiday gift list. In this holiday season, here are six recordings to consider as you are thinking about your gift plans.
Windborne is made up of four New England based musicians who have traveled the world studying, researching, conducting, performing, and otherwise learning about harmony. Joining up their talents, Jeremy Carter-Gordon, Lynn Rowan,Lauren Breuning, and Will Rowan create powerful and flexible harmonies, which they apply to songs drawn from their deep roots in folk tradition. Their song choices are informed by ideas they state on the sleeve of their recording Recollections Revolutions:
Art is not neutral
Songs can give a voice to those who have none
Music has the ability to change hearts
Even when minds are made up
Should you be thinking that makes Windborne’s music stuffy or preachy, not at all: on this two disc set their music ranges from songs from miners’ and mill workers’ strikes, Civil War era tunes, shape note songs, bluegrass inflected music, to Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and the lively classic Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Consider, too, that the instruments with which they accompany their fine harmonies are jaw harp, banjo, and washboard.
Trading powerful leads and backing each other up with distinctive harmony and timing come up, too, in the very different sounding music Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson make on Ian & Sylvia: The Lost Tapes. If you’ve not heard these musicians before, you could think these are recent stars of the folk/American/blues/scene. Perhaps, though, you know Ian & Sylvia from their time as a chart topping act in the 1960s and 70s, or from their individual careers since that time. Either way, though, this two disc collection, chosen from tapes from live in the studio recordings Sylvia recently found in her attic, will show you just how good this Canadian duo was.
Thirteen tracks,on the first disc are a number of the pair’s hits, among them Summer Wages, Four Strong Winds, and Darcy Farrow. Disc two comprises songs which had never been released by the duo. Among other things it shows Ian & Sylvia’s willingness to, and success at, taking on and putting on their own stamp on songs including country classic Sweet Dreams and blues classic Come On in My Kitchen..
Cormac De Barra and Moya Brennan offer duets on their album Timeless, too, collaborations played on the harp. From Donegal and Dublin respectively, the two do sing on some of the tracks — you may know Brennan as the voice of the group Clannad, perhaps, or from her solo recordings or her work with T with the Maggies, and De Barra as an artist who knows how to experiment with the sounds of the Irish harp. The focus here is on the music these two Irish artists make on their harps, with voices as other, albeit important, instruments in the mix.
Timeless includes both traditional and newly composed pieces drawing from their roots in Irish tradition; six of the ten are co written by Moya, Corrnac, and Lynne Earls, who also produced the album, one is a co write with the two harpists and Paul Jarvis, and there a cover of Christine McVie’s Songbird, along with two pieces from the tradition. Adventure on the harp and in Irish music to be had here.
Another sort of adventure in Irish music comes on the album Liag, which sees Eamonn Coyne, John Doyle, and Dermot Byrne joining up to offer music arising from southwest Donegal, mostly lesser known tunes. Coyne, who plays banjo and tenor guitar, Byrne, whose instruments are accordion and melodeon, and Doyle, who plays guitar and bouzouki and is the singer of the group, offer mainly fast paced, top notch collaboration: you can really hear them listening to each other.
This should be no surprise, as among the three they’ve been part of groups including Salsa Celtica, Altan, and Solas, and worked with artists including Joan Baez, Alison Brown, Kris Drever, and Cathie Ryan. The landscapes of southwest Donegal have played a part in the lives of each of the three musicians. Liag is both a celebration of and a gift of gratitude for that.
Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan each have strong solo careers, and they have worked on music projects together for some time. That’s is natural, as they are married. Small Town Stories is the first recording they have made as the duo Smith and McClennan, however, and it’s a fine next step for both. McClennan’s songwriting, which could be called Americana with a twist of his native New Zealand, is to the fore, while Smith’s excellent singing and spot on phrasing, often found in her treatments of traditional songs of her native Scotland, gracefully add to his ideas.
The couple well knows how and when to trade lead and harmony and how to back each other up with tasteful instrumentation, too. There are thoughtful songs and great melodies and, indeed, stories, which will linger in the mind long after a song is done. Especially listen out for The Sweetest Girl, Firefly, and Bricks & Mortar.
Carrie Newcomer is also a powerful storyteller through word, melody, and voice. Based in Indiana, she she travels the world with her music, and finds that whether she in a school in India or a concert stage in the US, there are, as she says, threads that pull through: people care about love, grief, understanding, and wonder, whatever language they speak and wherever they may find themselves in the world.
Finding the sacred in the everyday is a constant theme in Newcomer’s work; her songs are by turns comforting and questioning, and always invite reflection, not a bad thing for this, or any. time of year. Consider, for example, these lines which occur midway through the title track of her recent album, Point of Arrival:
There is a faith that’s only found in doubt
Acceptance is the closing cycle
The end that marks the point of arrival
Looking down at my hands
Finally I understand
The empty space has changed somehow
And it’s filled with hallelujah now.
There are ten more equally thought provoking and poetic tracks to be found on Point of Arrival.
Reflection, poetry, melody, connection: each a gift of this winter season, and each to be found, in differing ways, through the music on these albums. May they help you fill out your holiday gift list.
Side note: perhaps you’d like your gift list to include music focused on the winter season? I’ve a story about that, including several fine recent Celtic recordings, over at Wandering Educators. It is called Music for Starry Winter Nights.
Photograph of Carrie Newcomer by Jim McGuire
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